After months of speculation and at least two periods of negotiation, Mike Conley is Utah-bound. The Grizzlies great, conductor of Orchestra Grit & Grind, will pair with Jazz stars Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert in an attempt to take that 50-win team even deeper into the playoffs.
Meanwhile, the Grizzlies make a full break from their past era to jump fully into a future built around rising forward/center Jaren Jackson Jr. and presumed Conley replacement Ja Morant.
If this trade sets a firm course for the franchise, it’s also the first real roster-management test for a new front office structure led by VP of basketball operations Zach Kleiman.
Let’s work though the deal with an eye on both questions.
Conley is headed to the Jazz for three players and two draft picks. The five components:
Jae Crowder: A 28-year-old, 6-6 combo forward who averaged 12 points for the Jazz last season and who will be on a $7.8 million expiring contract this season.
Kyle Korver: A 38-year-old wing who is one of the great three-point shooters of his generation but who is nearing the end. Korver’s on a $7.5 million expiring contract that is guaranteed at roughly $3.4 million for next season.
Grayson Allen: A 23-year-old guard who was the No. 21 pick in the 2018 draft but who played limited minutes as a rookie. Allen’s in the second year of his rookie contract, at $2.4 million next season.
2019 No. 23 pick: This will technically be exercised by the Jazz on Thursday night to satisfy some legal fine print, but the player will be selected on the Grizzlies’ behalf.
A future first-rounder: Here are the fairly complicated but important “protections” on this pick:
- 2020: 1-7, 15-30 (the pick goes to Memphis only if it falls between 8-14)
- 2021: Same as in 2020
- 2022: 1-6 (goes to Memphis if it falls 7-30)
- 2023: 1-3 (goes to Memphis if it falls 4-30)
- 2024: 1 (goes to Memphis if it falls 2-30)
- 2025: Converts to two second-rounder if it hasn’t been sent to Memphis yet.
A classic ‘rebuilding’ trade
People like to talk about “winning” and “losing” trades, but trades aren’t competition. They’re more likely temporary partnerships between franchises often seeking different things.
For the Grizzlies, this is a rebuilding trade, and in a rebuilding trade a team is typically seeking one or more of three types of return: 1. Draft picks, 2. Current players with future value, and 3. Financial flexibility that can be used to acquire one or both of the former.
The Marc Gasol trade the Grizzlies made in February was very light on draft picks and effectively non-existent on financial flexibility. But in free-agents-to-be Jonas Valanciunas and Delon Wright, the player return was decent if uncertain.
At a glance, the Conley deal is more like the Pau Gasol trade from an earlier rebuild: It checks all three boxes but contains no individual piece that would excite most fans.
The closer you look at the deal, however, the better it appears, and the more you notice a smart, thorough approach at work. Let’s take a look at three more subtle elements.
Key element No. 1: The pick negotiation
Sources suggest the Jazz were willing to offer a second pick back in February, but with a battery of protections that were less favorable to the Grizzlies.
The complicated pick protections offer just that for Utah: They are extremely unlikely to give up a high lottery pick and will never give up the top pick. The Grizzlies should have similarly negotiated pick protections out this far and firmly on the 2015 Jeff Green deal that still hangs over the franchise’s head.
But the Grizzlies also gave themselves a decent chance at a decent pick here. My assumption was that a second future first would simply be lottery protected and highly likely to be another pick in the 20s.
The double protection in 2020 and 2021 will keep the Grizzlies from having to accept a later pick in those years. Either they’ll get a (late) lottery pick or, more likely, it will push Utah’s obligation into 2022, when Conley may be gone and the team could be less competitive. And even if it’s still a pick in the 20s, this could be the highly anticipated “double draft,” in which high schools are allowed back into the NBA draft and there’s a one-year surge of talent.
This is a better draft “asset” than I thought the Grizzlies would get from the Jazz.
Key element No. 2: Keeping Dante Exum out of the deal
The Jazz have cap space this summer and had the ability to absorb a significant portion of Conley’s $32.5 million contract for next season into open space. But they were still going to have to send some salary back.
The initial assumption was that would most likely be forward Derrick Favors ($16.9 million next season), a starter in Utah. If the Jazz were going to keep Favors and fellow starting forward Joe Ingles, that meant two of three players had to be in this deal: Crowder, Korver or Exum.
While Crowder and Korver are on expiring deals, Exum is on the books for $9.6 million in each of the next two seasons and is coming off season-ending surgery. Including Exum would likely have been most beneficial formulation for the Jazz and least beneficial to the Grizzlies. That the Grizzlies were able to negotiate favorable protections on the second first-rounder and get the most favorable necessary contract return is good work.
Key element No. 3: The traded player exception
A somewhat arcane part of the NBA’s roster-management rules, traded player exceptions seem to be relevant here coming and going.
The Grizzlies created an $8 million exception when they traded Garrett Temple in February, and Crowder will presumably be taken into that slot. They also created a $2.4 million exception last summer when they traded Jarell Martin to Orlando, and Grayson Allen seems to slot into that exception.
This should create a new trade exception in the $25 million range.
Why does this matter? It may not. But if the Grizzlies operate above the salary cap but below the luxury tax line this summer and/or this coming season – which seems probable right now – it will be a way to absorb salary in trades despite being over the cap. This could be useful to take in players the Grizzlies really want, but would be more likely to be used to acquire draft assets in “salary dump” trades.
The current players
Short-term, Crowder is the most significant player in this trade for the Grizzlies. While he had something of a disappointing season for Utah, Crowder is still youngish, is versatile and should soak up minutes if he breaks camp with the Grizzlies. With Kyle Anderson coming off shoulder surgery, it wouldn’t be surprising if Crowder were the Grizzlies’ opening night starter at small forward.
As a veteran role player on a reasonable expiring contract, Crowder could also easily be a trade asset himself, a potentially attractive target for contending teams looking for proven depth.
Long-term, Allen is the most significant player here for the Grizzlies. With the team’s two top players at point guard and forward/center, the Grizzlies should be on an all-out search for guards and wings who can shoot from distance. That’s Allen’s skillset and college pedigree. It’s unclear if he can do it at the NBA level, but the Grizzlies can give him an opportunity this season. It’s a low-cost look.
Korver’s future is the most unknown. There had been talk of potential retirement this summer, but maybe that’s changed?
Kyle Korver said after the season that he would mull retirement but one source with knowledge of his thinking said today that Korver, 38, is likely to play another season and maybe even two
— Marc Stein (@TheSteinLine) June 19, 2019
There are four potential paths for Korver: He could retire. He could play for the Grizzlies, where he becomes a likely in-season trade or buyout candidate. He could be rerouted this summer. Or, given his partial guarantee, the Grizzlies could buy him out to create an open roster spot and a little more space below the luxury tax. Korver’s guarantee date is July 7.
Options at No. 23
I wrote a little bit here about some potential late-first picks I liked. Wings and/or shooters are the Grizzlies’ biggest need, but “best player available” is the likely pick. Who do the most prominent current mock drafts have going at No. 23? Right now:
- ESPN: Ty Jerome
- The Ringer: Matisse Thybulle
- The Athletic: Cameron Johnson
- Tankathon: Cameron Johnson
Paths of opportunity, now and later
By cutting Conley’s salary in half and spreading what remains among three players, the Grizzlies have much more financial flexibility this summer. Even assuming they re-sign both Jonas Valanciunas and Delon Wright, they should be able to do at least one (and perhaps two) of four things, in the following order of educated-guess likelihood:
- Use some or all of the $9.2 million mid-level exception
- Use some (not all) their Conley trade exception
- Keep Avery Bradley
- Re-sign Justin Holiday
However, by turning Conley into four players – including the No. 23 pick – the Grizzlies also create something of a roster crunch, With 15 full spots, consider this (in rough order of presumed likelihood of being on the opening night roster):
- Jaren Jackson Jr.
- Ja Morant
- No. 23 pick
- Kyle Anderson
- Dillon Brooks
- Bruno Caboclo
- Jae Crowder
- Jonas Valanciunas
- Grayson Allen
- Ivan Rabb
- Delon Wright
- CJ Miles
- Chandler Parsons
- Jevon Carter
- Kyle Korver
- Free agents still left: Holiday, Bradley, Joakim Noah, Tyler Dorsey
That’s this summer. What about 2020? In Parsons, Miles, Crowder and Korver the Grizzlies currently have nearly $50 million in veteran expiring contracts for next season, and that doesn’t include several smaller contracts that might also come off the books.
If everything breaks right – and, right, when does it? – the Grizzlies could go into the summer of 2020 with two young stars, some nice secondary players (if some step forward this season) and massive cap space. The future is never guaranteed, but it looks considerably more promising for the Grizzlies than it did a year ago today.
Could there have been a better offer in July?
Utah was the only potential Conley trade partner firmly in the known. Reporting of the Indiana Pacers targeting former Jazz guard Ricky Rubio suggests they weren’t heavily in the mix. The Boston Celtics likely losing Al Horford put their interest in doubt.
Could the Grizzlies have waited until July’s free agency to see if the point guard market shook out in a way that prompted better offers? Sure, but that would have carried risk. My assumption is that the Grizzlies would deal this week if a reasonable threshold was met. Given the favorable pick protections and significant current and future financial flexibility, this trade seems to have more than met that expectation.
Convey two ways
You got tired of hearing the word “convey” last season? Too bad. The Grizzlies now have a complicated pick situation coming (from Utah) and going (to Boston). And there’s a decent chance neither situation is resolved even next summer.